Sunday, 29 November 2015 03:17

Writers for Conservatives: 21 -- Country Writing

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Writers for Conservatives: 21 -- Country Writing

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

My subject, country magazines since the 1960s, is probably quite unknown to my readers, but since this series is intended to broaden the horizons of conservatives beyond the immediate confines of politics, and since the subject ultimately has a political bearing of some importance, I think it shall be of interest.

In the late 1960s and on through the 1970s there sprang up a number of magazines with names like Wood Heat Quarterly and Farmstead, cheaply printed on newspaper stock, founded by hippie homesteaders, and some of the editors were surprisingly able. Practical articles (e.g. "How to Build a Hen House") predominated, but there were reflective pieces, too. Here are some of the contributions my wife and I made to a monthly, Rural Delivery, in Nova Scotia: Jo Ann, the garden editor, wrote a monthly column about growing flowers and herbs, and some of the things I wrote about were: my teenage years on a farm, signs of the seasons, cutting and storing ice from a pond, how to make a dill pickle crock, and the significance of material objects in our lives. At the same time another columnist wrote about language, one covered forestry, a couple wrote a column about their sheep farm, a Newfoundlander wrote about his life on an island, and they were all well written. RD was better than most country magazines, but it was not unique.

At the same time, a slick upscale magazine, Country Journal, was published in Vermont, catering to a new population, inspired by the general Greenism of the time, that had been taking over the State since the mid 1960s. I've never thought of a better name than the one I gave them at the time, Country Fakes. They came to Vermont to live a nice, clean country life and, in search of its signs and symbols, they turned to Country Journal. It contained practical articles, but they lacked the earnestness of those in the hippie homesteader magazines. As an editor once explained to Jo Ann, "None of our readers are going to do any of these things, but they're entertained by reading about them." Country Journal was a very sharp production, the most sophisticated country magazine I've ever seen. Everything about it -- layout, typography, its whole appearance -- was tasteful, while it retained an overall impression of rustic Vermont solidity. A friend told me that the two owners had worked at Life magazine.

General interest magazines -- Saturday Evening Post, Life, Colliers -- were popular from the 1920s into the 1960s because they appealed to a large and growing homogenous middleclass market, people who, despite regional variations, listened to the same popular music, watched the same movies, and shared a patriotic faith that carried them through World War II. That much of that culture was superficial; that there were stronger currents under the surface is irrelevant to the argument: general interest magazines collapsed with the dissolution of the middleclass consensus in the 1960s, as the audience fragmented. A similar audience shift happened to the country magazines later. The first hippie homesteaders completely disappeared by 1980, leaving their yurts and communes for jobs in Daddy's bank, killing off the hippie homesteader country magazines. A few tried to adapt by becoming slick and dropping the old country articles for lavish photo spreads about home decor or fancy gardens, hoping to capture the interest of the new audience now dominating the countryside, the hybrid of Country Fakes and yuppies, but those magazines failed, too. The Country Journal owners were smart; they sold out at the top of the market, and the magazine immediately began to deteriorate. Passing through the hands of various publishing conglomerates, getting worse and worse, it finally perished in the early 1990s.

Looking back at all those magazines, the most interesting thing about them today is their freedom from ideology. Aside from a generally pro-countryside orientation, they had no axes to grind. A writer could champion "organic" gardening or the use of chemicals, could advocate clear cutting or selective forestry, could preach tractors or workhorses.

The successors to those magazines today are not many, they are all slick, and they are relentlessly ideological. Some are frankly politically left, but all share the same Green ideology and ardently support "organic" farming and all the practices associated with it. While some of the practices are sound, the ideas behind them are not.

Their audience is composed of the spiritual descendants of the first readers of the country magazines of the 1970s, the hippie homesteaders, and like their earlier counterparts, they aspire to the country life but don't do much about it. Satisfaction comes from browsing the pages, soaking up the rays of heartfelt concern for Nature, of a blissful future on the smiling land, etc., etc. It is the old utopian vision, peculiarly American, of the Beautiful Simple Country Life, peddled by gurus since 1790, when J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur published Letters From an American Farmer, to the present day when Wendell Berry is the guru. That has always been the mission of these magazines -- to push a vision of an illusory countryside. That it should take on such a rigid, doctrinaire, militant form now is a consequence of the informal alliance with the Greens, who are intent on gaining power, via legislatures, courts, and administrative fiat over our lives. It is a Cause of Great Import, and while they are not consciously directed, there is a clear feeling in these magazines that a struggle is in progress and it's Us against Them.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of country utopianism is revealed in this anecdote. One of the country magazines we wrote for was the Canadian counterpart of Country Journal published in Ontario, Harrowsmith. An editor commissioned us to write an essay telling how to raise an orphan lamb from birth to chops. Such lambs are not uncommon; a ewe may die or have twins or reject one. The nursery rhyme about Mary and the little lamb is such a one. We knew enough by then (the early 1980s) about the audience of such a slick magazine to know they would not relish a description of slaughtering and butchering, so we wrote to the editor about it and he reassured us. Still leery, I hitched the mare to the express wagon and drove three miles to a phone to call the editor, warning him that there'd be a lot of metaphorical blood in the article, but again he brushed off my fears. We had raised many animals, but never sheep, so I did much research and consulted local sheepmen. Jo Ann did the nice bits about Mary's little lamb, and I handled the practical side: how to house and feed the lamb, how to wean it, how to build a manger, and finally, how to kill and skin and cut up the carcass.

In such an essay I try to be absolutely clear, simple, and cogent, and I was proud of it. Even if you knew nothing, you could read that article and do the job from start to finish. They were aghast at Harrowsmith. First we had to cut out all the horrid bits. When the lamb was ready for, uh, slaughter it should be taken to someone who did that sort of thing, and nothing more should be said about it. Then they suggested places in the rest of the piece where it could be tarted up with cute phrases. The point here is the aversion to reality; the countryside must be presented in a sanitized form.

Now my country writing career is again threatened (when we refused to alter the essay, Harrowsmith dumped us), and for the same reason. We write for a slick country magazine, a piously Green, "organic" quarterly edited by a couple, ardent believers in The Beautiful Simple Country Life, happy with my innocuous vignettes of old-fashioned country life. Unfortunately, I'm running out of that sort of thing, and there have been signs that the editors are uneasy with the realistic tones in my recent work. Now they have rejected my latest piece, on predators, saying readers wouldn't stand for it, and I should submit something more "benevolent." So if I describe the shooting of a wildcat that was killing my chickens, it is the same faux pas I committed when I described the slaughter of a lamb; that is, I have told the truth about something squeamish folks would rather not hear about.

I have gone on about this because it illustrates, in an obvious way, the aversion to realism of the countryside branch of Greenism, itself a movement based on lies and fantasies. If we examine this theme, we see that it is the predominant note of the present moment. It is not an exaggeration to point out that the policies, both foreign and domestic, of the present administration are fantasies. To think that posing as guilty penitents before the rulers of Russia or Iran will advance our interests, or to think that virtually nationalizing our economy will restore prosperity -- what are these notions but fantasies, and like the silly ideas of country magazines and the preposterous ones of Greens, they are peculiarly childish and unserious. This is the keynote of our time, the public voice of yuppieism, expounded by a cohort who never grew up.

Conservatives criticize the administration, but the childish nature of their fantasies and even the fantasies themselves, are not seen for what they are: I mean, to criticize the administration's foreign policy as if it were a debatable strategy is absurd -- it is nothing more than juvenile wishfulness. It is, perhaps, too much to expect conservatives to know anything about countryside utopianism, but their ignorance of the dire significance of Greenism is a calamity. Of course, they have been poorly served by conservative publications, which display astonishing ignorance of the subject; they regularly publish articles that accept the theses of global warming and man-made climate change. I have been trying, for more than 20 years, to interest conservative editors in the subject, and I have gotten nowhere (except in these pages). The point is that fantasy is all-pervasive today, not just in the political administration but also in a major movement, Greenism, destructive of the environment, private property, and prosperity, and is a related utopian movement directed at our agricultural economy. If we can recognize these distinct entities for what they are, and if we can see the thematic link between them, we can generate much more effective criticism, especially because conservatives have one advantage: they are realists. Fantasy is attractive so long as it remains a dream; put into practice it is a disaster. We have a great opportunity before us -- to expose the puerile fantasies so prevalent today by the constant criticism of well-informed realism.

And your first act will be to find a magazine that will publish my country essays! *

"He is a self-made man and worships his creator." --John Bright

Read 1766 times Last modified on Sunday, 29 November 2015 09:17
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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